You may know that a little vinegar, salt, sugar, and water can completely transform foods, from vegetables, to fruits, to even shrimp. But pickling brings a fresh, bright acidy to cocktails, too. A pickled element can raise the bar on an adult sipper — adding a savory element as well as a vibrancy that a citrus juice can’t offer.
There are two ways to pickle your cocktails, according to mixologists: Cocktails using pickling liquid, as well as those involving vinegar-based syrups and shrubs, are both considered pickled.
“Pickling a cocktail is a great alternative to adding acids in cocktails. It’s also a fun way to hone down on your mixology skills and try something new,” says Crystal Chase, bartender at NYC’s Talk Story Rooftop.
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Here’s how — and why — you should pickle your cocktails at home.
Acid-Washed Cocktails? Yes!
Pickled cocktails are more complex than olive brine in a Dirty Martini or a pickled onion garnishing a Gibson. This type of beverage allows for a more multifaceted flavor profile, whether you’re starting with a spirit that acts as a blank canvas, or one that has a complementary flavor profile.
David Arnold, a New York-based mixologist and author of “Liquid Intelligence,” notes that a pickled cocktail hits the spot for those times in which a more piquant flavor is desired. “Pickled cocktails are great when looking for something more on the saltier side,” he says. “By taking it to the pickling side, it’s not just adding salt; it’s more savory.”
Arnold notes that pickled elements work well with spicy and sweet elements, like a spicy Margarita or a spin on a Paloma. It hits all the flavor notes, while adding levels of depth to a finish.
Amy Racine, beverage director at New York-based JF Restaurants, says pickling is designed to bring savory elements to sweetener ingredients, too. Creating a vinegar-based shrub with fruits or vegetables helps to bring a fresh element to cocktails. She explains that fruit-based shrubs can elevate the cocktails year-round, especially in winter when seasonal produce can be hard to come by.
While it may sound a little funky, sipping on a pickled cocktail is no different than drinking kombucha or shrubs. But in order to keep the tipple even and bright, Chase notes that a good basic ratio is two parts vinegar, two parts water, and one part sweetener. Add to this a tablespoon of pure salt, such as sea salt, pink salt, or pickling salt. “It all will vary based on your palate,” Chase says. “Adjust more sweetener if you’re just getting used to imbibing vinegar.”
Racine echoes this sentiment, explaining that citrus or sugar can be used to cut sour notes if needed. “When building a cocktail,” she says, “shrubs can easily come across too sour or vinegary, so when using a shrub, be very light with any additional citrus.” She recommends adding a bit of vermouth, fresh juices, or simple syrup to take the edge off.
Chase says her preferred combination is Scotch with pickling elements, as the oak and vanilla notes of the spirit are balanced well by bright vinegar notes. Chase explains that when experimenting with pickling, home bartenders need not worry about finding the perfect boozy combination. “Any spirit can be used in a cocktail with pickling, just like any spirit can be used in a cocktail with lemon,” she says.
Easy Does It
Adding pickled elements, whether brine or shrubs, is a way to utilize ingredients that are either on hand, like vinegar, or would otherwise go to waste, like olive brine or pickle juice. Add to this the ability to flex your mixology chops, and it’s a win-win. From there, building a pickled cocktail starts with baby steps forward until you land on the flavor profile that best satiates your palate. “It’s very easy to start low and go high,” Arnold says. “But, buy a brand of pickled items that you’re going to like, because the flavor varies from brand to brand.”
Chase explains that taking some liberties with ingredients, too, can add a layer of fun to your adult beverage. She suggests adding in spices and herbs to enhance the pickled vegetable or fruit, recommending pink peppercorn, cinnamon, or cardamom for the dried spices. Adding ginger, lemongrass, and turmeric to the brine is also a way to bring out new layers of brightness.
“Using pickling in home cocktails or in a bar is a great way to have ingredients ready at the drop of a hat without the worry of juicing,” Chase says. And while pickled cocktails are designed to take a good cocktail to the next level, pickling can be used to create outstanding mocktails, too.
“Shrubs are also known as drinking vinegars, essentially pickling liquid designed to be imbibed with or without liquor,” says Chase. Sipping solo or with a mixer such as tonic water or club soda makes a perfect non-alcoholic option.